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Renée Loth

The mermaid that may connect the city

By Renée Loth
June 19, 2010

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THE IMMENSE female figure juts off an ordinary brick building like a bowsprit or mermaid. Artist Trace O’Connor calls it a “giant human-octopus hybrid the size of my first apartment.’’ You stand there and think: This is the kind of edgy thing they do in New York City.

But it’s Marginal Street in East Boston, a weedy, industrial strip of urban waterfront, with salty air, derelict buildings, and heart-stopping views of the skyline. This week it is also a staging area for the HarborArts outdoor gallery, a public art installation that connects creative design with what architects call “the built environment.’’

Paintings and sculptures, many of them made from natural or salvaged materials by 50 artists, use the harbor backdrop in striking ways. The gallery is only one part of a sprawling 10-day citywide festival of architecture and community called Common Boston. Now in its fourth year, this volunteer project of the Boston Society of Architects brings together artists, designers, historians, and community organizations in activities that encourage residents to see their everyday surroundings in new ways.

In East Boston, one of six featured neighborhoods, visitors today can join guided tours led by various partner organizations. Besides Marginal Street, there’s a walking tour of Logan Airport’s sidewalks, a polyglot of ethnic restaurants, open artist studios, and a reclaimed rail yard that has become a beloved linear park.

This evening, the East Boston cultural space Zumix will hold a premiere — complete with red carpet — of personal neighborhood video portraits produced by local teenagers. Similar free activities are scheduled all week for Chinatown, Jamaica Plain, Dudley Square, Upham’s Corner, and Fort Point Channel (www.commonboston.org).

Common Boston challenges two stereotypes about this city: that it is too square to host such a creative party; and that it is too balkanized to cross various social lines. The theme of this year’s festival is “Where We Connect,’’ an examination of the barriers and bridges among neighborhoods.

“We wanted to generate a way for people to have productive conversations and hear from different voices,’’ said Justin Crane, an architect with Cambridge Seven Associates who is broadly credited with founding Common Boston. With some understatement, he added: “We realized that the intellectual connections between the neighborhoods aren’t as strong as they could be.’’

This is a sadly familiar topic for Boston, which despite sustained effort is still haunted by decades-old violence over school desegregation and still fractured by ethnicity and class. But the festival manages to address this without lecturing. Instead, the connections arise organically.

For example, Vivien Li of the Boston Harbor Association will narrate a boat tour between East Boston and Fort Point Channel, two communities with similar waterfront development issues that rarely talk to each other. There will be a photo scavenger hunt next week where teams wander through the city with cellphone cameras finding specific shots that illustrate “interactions between residents across social, economic, cultural, and geographic boundaries.’’ The hunt concludes with a happy hour.

Boston has the most architects per capita of any city in the country. The bad news is that the unemployment rate for architects is approaching 30 percent. But the good news is that a surfeit of pent-up energy and creativity was available to volunteer with Common Boston, which is a far bigger event in 2010 than in previous years. “One of our goals is to connect different organizations that help make Boston more equitable, sustainable, creative, and inspiring,’’ said Crane.

Organizers hope the festival will tap into the city’s strong tradition of community activism that crosses neighborhoods, dating to the successful fight to stop the inner belt highway in the late 1960s. In many ways Boston was in the vanguard of the “new urbanism’’ movement that promotes social networks and elevates ordinary neighborhood life to a cultural phenomenon worth preserving.

In Boston today, that social knitting is often frayed. “There’s a perception that it’s hard to get from one place to another,’’ said Crane. And he isn’t just talking about the city’s notoriously bad street signs.

It may be asking too much of a design festival to cure generations of suspicion and clannishness that still define Boston’s neighborhoods. But it’s a start.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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